History's witnesses

EyeWitness to History: History Through the Eyes of Those Who Lived It is a website that offers us a direct link to the people who made history - or saw it being made.

I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, "Can you see anything?" it was all I could do to get out the words, "Yes, wonderful things." - From "Entering King Tut's Tomb, 1923."

History, all too often, is a collection of articles written by persons who read a collection of articles written by persons who read a collection of articles about events that none of them ever saw. In legal terms, this is analogous to hearsay (twice removed) and a distant second in weight to testimony - however flawed it may be - of an eyewitness. Primary sources, while essential to the process of recording and studying history, are frequently lost under layers of scholarly analysis, but the immediacy of first-hand accounts can bring history back to life for the reader. EyeWitness to History: History Through the Eyes of Those Who Lived It offers a direct link to the people who made history - or saw it being made.

Eyewitness received a paragraph or two in a review of related sites some years ago in this column, but it has since grown into a much more extensive collection, and continues to expand. In late 2003, there were slightly more than 100 first-hand accounts in the site's index. At the time of this writing, that number has almost doubled. But while the content has increased, the look of the site has remained very much the same over the years, including the unusual selection of screen colors - browns and tans suggesting old paper and sepia-toned photographs. In fact, the most significant change to the site's design has been a slight compression of the layout in order to accommodate third-party advertising, situated mostly around the edges of the screen.

If the purpose of a homepage is to introduce new visitors to a site's intentions and then draw them further into the production, then EyeWitness embraces this policy with gusto. It peppers its front door with multiple enticements. On the left of the page, a handful of iconic images, many instantly recognizable (portrait of Columbus, Washington crossing the Delaware, etc.), offer immediate gratification in the form of direct links to related stories. In the center of the layout, "A Window To History" holds a more detailed introduction to a sample story, including an excerpt from an eyewitness account, while "It Happened This Month" takes advantage of the lure of chronological correlation (an approach frequently used by The History Channel in the programming of its movies).

In addition to these main attractions, there are other avenues of entry, such as a "Photo of the Week," RealAudio "Voices of the 20th Century," and a "Spotlight" - which links several narratives to a single event. Above it all and sitting near the top of every page, a navigation bar provides access to the entire collection by period (Ancient World, 18th Century, World War II), or through an single-page chronological Index.

The current collection at EyeWitness begins with The Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. - one of history's earliest recorded military engagements - as related by Herodotus some years after it occurred. The narrative is introduced by a few paragraphs of historical context, then presented in excerpts interspersed with quick summaries (one of those summaries being accidentally repeated in this particular case). A few related images break up the text, and snippets of trivia populate the far right of the page. To the left, a listing of other stories from the same period offer such events as the assassination of Julius Caesar, Rome's destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and "Dining with Attila the Hun."

All the narratives follow this format, and include such milestones as The Destruction of Pompeii, The Battle of Waterloo, the San Francisco Earthquake, and Vice President Spiro Agnew receiving a kickback for a federal contract (the most recent event in the collection). Also included are stories that have more of a cultural or human interest, rather than a pivotal historic event. Everyday Life in Ancient Greece, the introduction of the Baseball Glove, Early Adventures with the Automobile, and Making Movies in 1920 fall into this category.

Voices of the 20th Century is a much smaller collection, with less than 20 entries so far. It has the advantage of objectivity, however, providing the actual recording of the subject's words and inflections, rather than transcripts or interpretations. Introduced with a few hundred words of historical context, "Voices" files include recordings of Charles Lindbergh and both Roosevelts, Tokyo Rose and Lord Haw Haw, a wartime radio sketch about Gas Rationing , and of course, the Hindenburg disaster. SnapShots (four examples to date) takes archival photographs, like a group portrait of Air Mail mechanics in 1924, and turns them into interactive images with links to related stories.

As you have no doubt deduced, not all of the accounts in EyeWitness to History are necessarily eyewitness accounts, especially those narratives that reach further back into history. (It is, to say the least, unlikely that Herodotus was invited into the council of generals that took place before the Battle of Marathon.) In addition, many of those stories which do qualify as first-hand reports are liable to the personal or political biases of the authors. But each event's introduction holds all the necessary caveats, and these cautions are still true of histories being written today about current events, so these older examples are no less relevant for their vintage. Meanwhile, no matter how skilled a historian may be at relating, for example, the experiences of war, third-party accounts can't have the impact of a French civilian's account of the D-Day landings at Normandy, or recollections from the survivor of a World War I gas attack: "The trench started to wind like a snake, and sandbags appeared to be floating in the air. The noise was horrible; I sank onto the fire step, needles seemed to be pricking my flesh, then blackness."

Clearly, primary sources aren't the only component required for an accurate view of history - context (sometimes global) has to be considered, motivations and circumstances taken into account, and impacts calculated. But nothing lifts history off the page like the words of the people who were there. Though it couldn't expect to serve as a sole source for students of history, EyeWitness and assets like it should be considered essential references for anyone looking for the complete picture. (For the rest of us, it's just a very entertaining website.)

EyeWitness to History can be found at http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/

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